Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome (but possibly short-lived) breath of fresh air among the cookie-cutter, marketing-driven filmic universe of Marvel super-heroes that has become the de facto standard model of modern Hollywood blockbuster entertainment. Treading a very fine line between fitting in inconspicuously among the Marvel line-up and reintroducing a breathless, juvenile idea of sheer fun in an output that has become far too serious and predictable, this lively adaptation of a second-tier series in the comic-book potentate's universe benefits from having been handed over to a hungrier, edgier director: former Troma alumnus James Gunn, a screenwriter-for-hire and practitioner of genre cinema (Slither).
Mr. Gunn is the right man for the job, bringing in a breezy, cheeky B-movie feel, a self-deprecating, wink-and-nod quality that melds together Joss Whedon's pop-cultural sensibility, Joe Dante's satirical bite and the wide-eyed wonder of Steven Spielberg's mid-1980s Amblin productions; Guardians of the Galaxy is in fact closer to a twin of Mr. Whedon's space-western TV/film combo Firefly/Serenity. The title's "guardians of the galaxy" are an opportunity to insert some character-driven comedy in the usually super-serious Marvel universe: a series of outcast space losers that fate pulls together around a sphere of unimaginable power, the Infinity Stone, that can destroy the universe in the wrong hands. There's Peter Quill (a star-making performance by TV actor Chris Pratt), a Missouri boy abducted as a kid and raised by space outlaws, genetically modified warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), wisecracking raccoon bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick, sentient tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and the totally unironic, un-self-conscious brute Drax (Dave Bautista).
This motley crew of misfits comes together first chasing the Stone for their own ends and then eventually ganging up to make sure it doesn't fall in the hands of the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace), thrown headfirst into an unpretentious, entirely derivative space opera that wears its tongue clearly in its cheek. Meaning that Guardians of the Galaxy can be seen by those unfamiliar with the constant interconnectedness of the Marvel universe, and will be best enjoyed by those with a knowledge of the tropes of science fiction and exotic Hollywood pulp fiction, since it so clearly is a sort of love letter to classic studio adventures (closer in tone to some of the comic-book minor entries like The Rocketeer, for instance).
For all that, though, Guardians of the Galaxy still has to comply with the demands of the Marvel universe; hence Mr. Pace's somewhat dullish villain and the truly "super-heroic" final visual effects blow-out that seems designed to appease the studio but seems to pretty much drown the previous lightness of touch with a strong dosage of destruction and catastrophe. Yet, it's everything else - the lively, light-hearted banter between its geeky, nerdy underdog heroes, the expertly-judged combination of fast-paced action and anachronical wisecracks - that sets Guardians of the Galaxy apart from the remainder of the studio's assembly-line super-heroes. Maybe not for long; there's a sequel in the works already, and it seems as if these characters are going to "cross over" into the other Marvel series. For now, though, this will more than do, and will even make you wish all Summer entertainment was as breezy as this.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Cast Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro
Director James Gunn; screenwriters Mr. Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the Marvel comic book characters created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; cinematographer Ben Davis (colour, widescreen); composer Tyler Bates; designer Charles Wood; costumes Alexandra Byrne; editors Craig Wood, Fred Raskin and Hughes Winborne; effects supervisor Stéphane Ceretti; producer Kevin Feige; production company Marvel Studios
Screened August 1st 2014, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)